This weekend is as close as it gets to March Madness in the Ivy League. Penn looks to cap off another stellar Ancient Eight run, but it will have its hands full in tough games against Dartmouth and Harvard squads and a Tuesday night finale with Princeton. The shockingly mediocre Tigers can avoid their first-ever sub-.500 record in conference play by winning their final three games. And, with Penn having already wrapped up an outright Ivy title, second place is up-for-grabs between Cornell, Harvard, Dartmouth, Princeton and Yale.
Dartmouth at Penn, 7 p.m.
The hottest team in the league (Dartmouth?!) meets the best team in the league. If this were in Hanover we’d discuss upset possibilities. At the Palestra, I can only see the Big Green keeping it close at the very best. After all, Penn routed Dartmouth by 22 points on the Big Green’s home court.
Pick: Penn wins easily.
Harvard at Princeton, 7 p.m.
Strangely enough, picking Princeton here would mean betting on the underdog. The Cantabs have what the Tigers do not: rebounding.
Princeton center Judson Wallace has not scored in double digits since Feb., 11. And it’s not as if that’s because he has been concentrating on the boards — he has collected just 16 rebounds in the last five games. Harvard big men Matt Stehle and Brian Cusworth are head and shoulders above last year’s unanimous first-team All-Ivy choice.
Should the Tigers lose this game, it will mark the first time Princeton has had a losing record since the Ivy League was established — over 40 years ago.
Pick: Harvard edges the Tigers to complete a rare season sweep.
Columbia at Brown, 7 p.m.
This is not much more than a battle to stay out of last place. This weekend is the Lions’ last chance to prevent ending the season on a disastrous 10-game skid. Unfortunately, they’ll be on the road for both games.
Brown barely topped Columbia, 54-52, in their first meeting, and I think they are likely to do it again. The Bears won that game on a Jason Forte jumper with three seconds remaining, and he is the reason I expect them to win this game as well. Put bluntly, Matt Preston is a good player, but Forte is better — and in a battle of teams without much to play for, I’ll go with the better scorer.
Pick: Columbia keeps it close … but that’s it.
Cornell at Brown, 7 p.m.
The Big Red has plenty to play for in this contest — a second place Ivy finish — while the Bears are just trying to stay out of the cellar. Recently, however, neither team has been playing tremendous basketball. Cornell’s best all-around player, Lenny Collins, has not been shooting well, and powerful center Eric Taylor’s productivity has been subpar.
Brown star Jason Forte has certainly been playing better of late, but he still has more turnovers than assists during the Ivy League season and a woeful field goal percentage. Maybe he is just the only one that can score, but sometimes I wonder if the Bears might not be better off without Forte doing so much scoring (and shooting).
Pick: Cornell, but don’t be surprised if the well-coached Brown team holds serve on its home court.
Dartmouth at Princeton 7:30 p.m.
Dartmouth center David Gardner has put together a conference campaign that will argue well for All-Ivy honors. As much as the Tigers have suffered, and as hot as Dartmouth has been, I still don’t think Gardner alone will be enough to best Princeton at Jadwin Gymnasium against the Tigers’ zone. Should Michael McClaren or Mike Lang get hot from outside, however, expect Princeton to suffer another rare season sweep, this time at the hands of the Big Green.
Pick: Pick ’em. (I know that’s my job, but I can go either way on this one.)
Harvard at Penn, 7 p.m.
It’s just silly to pick any team in the Ivy League to beat the Quakers on their home turf. I would be very surprised if Penn didn’t finish with an undefeated conference record at the Palestra. The rest of the league has been so up and down, while Penn has been consistently excellent throughout — modulo a big loss at Yale.
Harvard’s inside presence is always the main concern, but Penn has proven that even without a big name on the blocks they are the best rebounding team in the league. Barring a Kevin Rogus shooting clinic, I see Penn winning easily. A lights-out night from Rogus could make it interesting — but not for too long.
Pick: Penn continues to roll.
Penn at Princeton, 7:30 p.m.
This is always a great way to end the season. This year it seems unlikely to have the implications that the matchup usually does — unless the Tigers have won their last two games. If Princeton enters this game 6-7 with a chance to end the Ivy season at .500, expect the Tigers to be pumped and pull out the victory they should have had at Penn Feb. 8 when they led by 18.
If Princeton has lost one or both of those games, Will Venable will already have his mind on baseball and the rest of the seniors will be itching to get out of the gym. A Penn team thirsty for postseason action and a season sweep of their rivals will embarrass Judson Wallace’s squad in front of the Tiger faithful.
Pick: A conditional pick — If Princeton wins both games over the weekend, Princeton will end with a three-game win streak that saves some face for Joe Scott. If not, Penn closes out its Ivy Championship with a win at Jadwin.